Everything starts with a point of view. Turkey’s orientation – or rather– Orientalism is causing quite a discussion and is creating a wide split among policy makers, analysts, and journalists concerning whether or not the Islamist based ruling party, Justice and Development (AKP), is changing Turkish values. In the past, there was no doubt that Ataturk’s Turkey was destined to look toward the West. Now, there is talk about a whole new Turkey. Are the ones who warn of Turkey sliding away from the West creating a storm in a teacup? Or is there reason to wonder about Erdogan’s vision for the future of this first secular experience in a nation of Muslims?
Turkey’s recent turn in its relations with the United States and Israel is causing concern. For Washington, Turkey’s “no” vote on the U.N. Security Council Iran sanctions resolution was a disappointment. The Obama administration took that vote as a direct strike against U.S. national security interests in the Middle East and afar. So the question lingers over the long-term strategic relationship: If Turkey’s Middle Eastern blood prevails thicker at the end, how could it continue to be a loyal ally of the West at the same time?
A few weeks ago, for example, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first-ever full committee hearing devoted exclusively to Turkey’s foreign policy. “Based on a preliminary analysis of this year’s GMF Transatlantic Trends survey data,” Ian Lesser, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said, “we found that the percentage of those in Turkey who say that on international matters Turkey should act in closest cooperation with the countries of the Middle East has roughly doubled since last year.”
But the increased number of Turks who said they wish the country should work closely with others in the Middle East (surely excluding Israel) cannot be talking only about trade. Many Turks feel they are in a terribly difficult position, disappointed by the European Union and pushed toward the Muslim world by the United States.
Ross Wilson, a former United States Ambassador to Turkey, cautioned the committee to try not to see the question of Turkey’s orientation as a simple black-and-white issue. “Those who think they remember the halcyon days of yore should read their history,” Wilson said.
“Consider a Turk’s point of view. He or she might have thought the word ‘frenemy’ applied to the United States when [in 2003–2007] we barred cross-border pursuits of terrorists fleeing back into northern Iraq after attacking police stations and school buses. Or when the United States imposed an arms embargo after Turkish forces intervened in Cyprus in 1974. Or when we accepted the brutal overthrow of Turkey’s civilian government in 1980.”
The point is, there was no golden past of a mythical perfection in Turkey’s relationship with both the U.S. and Israel. Even prior to the Islamist-oriented AKP government’s rise to power, this relationship was defined in large part by Turkey’s NATO membership and it was always a tough-love situation. Specific circumstances determined whether it shined or turned dull.
Ambassador Wilson gave us a map of the troubling events in the U.S. – Turkey relationship. So, let’s follow the path. When Turkey intervened in Cyprus in 1974, Congress decided that Turkey violated U.S. law by using American equipment during that military operation, and imposed an arms embargo on Turkey. The embargo was lifted after four years, when an anti-American religious regime rose to power in Iran and the U.S. needed to use Turkey’s military bases. The result is the Turkish perception that the country has never been fully accepted as a part of the “West,” but rather used as a forward military base.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq fortified that idea. Turks would agree with Ambassador Wilson that the U.S. “accepted” not only the 1980 military coup but all the other past coups in Turkey as well. Whether it is a conspiracy theory or not, Turks from all over the political spectrum are convinced that the arrests of many current and retired members of the Turkish military as part of the Ergenekon investigation are linked to the military’s distant stance in 2003 despite an intense need to lobby members of the newly elected parliament to allow the U.S. to invade Iraq via Turkey. When the parliamentary vote failed, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, blamed the military.
The political football game between the U.S. and Turkey could go on and on; each side has a point. But suggesting that Turkey – prior to AKP government came into power – had some kind of fairy-tale relationship with Israel is also a flat-out lie. Again staying loyal to Ambassador Wilson’s timeline: When the Knesset passed a bill in 1980 stating that “a complete and unified Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Turkey joined a group of Arab countries calling to unseat Israel at the United Nations. That expulsion proposal went nowhere when then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick threatened to quit the General Assembly if it moved forward. At the time, Turkey was under military control and had no ambassadorial representation in Israel. Instead, it downgraded its representation to the second-secretary level. (Turkey had no ambassador to Israel between 1956 and 1991).
But it was before the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization PKK began its attacks that Turkey showed allegiance at the U.N. with Arab countries. The PKK started its violent campaign in 1984. Turks and Israelis agreed to create a strategic relationship in 1996 – a significant relationship that has protected each country’s interests. The PKK leader was captured in 1999 at a Greek Embassy in Kenya with the help of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. When he was tried before a Turkish judge, Abdullah Ocalan said that from early on the PKK had received support and training from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Libya. (Hamas had not yet been founded.) Counting also a number of European countries, Ocalan did not cite any support received from either the U.S. or Israel.
The circumstances created an environment in which the Turkish and Israeli interests found common ground. The Jewish state, as a result, invested significantly in its relationship with Turkey. Shortly after the flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza that resulted in nine Turkish death – one being Turkish-American – I had the chance to meet with David Ivri, the first director of Israel National Security Council and architect of the countries’ bilateral ties, at his office in Tel Aviv. When I asked him whether it was worth to invest in building a “strategic relationship” with Turkey, he said, without a pause, “Absolutely!” But, he said,
“[Erdogan] has a ideology which looks to…assist the Palestinians to get the leadership of Muslim countries in the region. Once it is about ideology, you cannot fight it, because you cannot bargain… Once it is about ideology, we cannot give up. That is why if there is a leader who is looking for ideology, there is no chance for making relations. So this is the beginning and this is the end.”
Erdogan has taken to the world stage over and over, talking about justice and claiming righteousness in his position. For some Palestinians, such as former Palestinian Authority adviser Ghaith al Omari, Turkey’s support for Hamas is far from helpful for efforts toward peace with Israel. “Yes, Hamas won the election. But any Palestinian government is expected to recognize Israel, recognize the past agreements and renounce violence,” al Omari told me.
“They said from the very beginning that they will not do so. So, if you have a government that says that, why then do you blame the world for not allowing Hamas a chance to govern? You can blame Israel for its conduct of the Gaza war, for using excessive force. But if you are living in a country where there are missiles falling in every day, where there is no end in sight to the violence, you get to the point where Israel takes action. This is one. Two, why should we recognize an engagement with Hamas when it is not even recognizing these three basic principles? Why should the world change and lower its standards just because Hamas won the election? You can use the same argument vis-à-vis Sudan. For God’s sake, he is blamed for genocide. But Erdogan guards Omar al-Bashir, too. (Erdogan claimed “Muslims don’t do genocide.”) What’s the standard? Where do we draw the line? … [W]hat kind of a message is this sending to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?”
Arabs may not have a singular identity, but they’re more or less defined and united by their hatred toward the Jewish state. Therefore, anyone trying to humiliate, corner and push Israel for making more and bigger mistakes – like Erdogan – is welcomed by the Arab street. Even more unfortunately, Erdogan is slowly and gradually shaping Turkey’s identity by using hatred toward Israel as a tool. What’s more crucial to remember is that it’s impossible for Turkey to strengthen its democracy and rule of law while siding with those with little or no practice of democratic governance.
The problem is not Turkey’s growing ties with the Arab states, but rather the way it is playing out on the Arab street. Turkey is becoming the shrill, dominant voice of criticism against Israel. Turkey’s own obsession with and provocation of Israel created bloodshed, and by aligning with groups like Hamas – it’s taking side with the radical movements of the region – and taking itself out of being a serious player in negotiating a peace agreement. Ghaith al Omari, the former advisor to the Palestinian Authority, notes that though others want to come to terms with Israel without violence, Erdogan refuses to give them a chance.
The bottom line: Yes, many criticized the U.S. during the 1980 military coup not because Washington “accepted” it, but because the U.S. turned away afterwards – when lawlessness became the new norm, and when human rights were violated by those who were supposed to guarantee their sanctity. Today, the U.S. dilemma is no different. As Frank Ricciardone, the designate U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing, “Over 70 percent of the air cargo for our mission in Iraq transits Incirlik Air Base, which is also the primary refueling stop for flights to Afghanistan.”
Surely, the U.S. needs this air base in Incirlik, just like it needed Turkey in 1979 when it lifted the arms embargo. Circumstances determine how the U.S. will handle Ankara. But right now, many in the region, including Turkey, think that American power is declining. For a superpower that has invested massive amounts of blood and money in the Middle East for oil and Israel, this is a test of time. It could also end up being a moment when the U.S. stops repeating its mistakes. Because the U.S. needs Incirlik air base, it should not assume that Erdogan is the only one who understands what justice means. If nothing else, maybe it is time for President Barack Obama to deliver yet another speech on the Turkish Prime Minister’s understanding of “Western values” and to articulate how he plays it on Turkish and Arab street…
Based in Washington, D.C., Tülin Daloglu is a Turkish-born journalist.